The Story Of First Church
It was the first year of the new decade, already made memorable by the February wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. It was the year of the world’s first postage stamp. In the United States it was an election year: “The Magician” against “Old Tippecanoe”; Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison in a battle to lead the 26-state union.
It was the year of “The Old Curiosity Shop” by Charles Dickens, songs by Mendelssohn and keyboard works by Liszt. In Massachusetts, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne created classics in American literature, while farther south a 14-year-old boy named Stephen Foster composed “The Tioga Waltz.” And closer to home, not far from present-day Lockhart, a battle at Plum Creek resulted in the deaths of 100 Comanche warriors.
It was 1840, and in Austin, the newly designated capital of the Republic of Texas, a dozen or so Methodists were listening to the new preacher, the Rev. John Haynie, a 52-year-old former mercantile store owner from Knoxville, Tenn, who received his preaching license in 1811.
The Mississippi Conference had appointed Haynie in December 1839 to the Texas Mission’s “Austin Circuit,” an area that included part of Bastrop County and what would soon become Travis County.
Haynie journeyed to the Republic of Texas from Tuscumbia, Ala, where he had spent 14 years as a merchant and minister. He arrived in Velasco in January 1839 and preached his first Texas sermon in May at Bastrop.
As a circuit rider, he preached in the area from Bastrop to Austin, avoiding Indians because he refused to bear arms. In November 1839 he served as chaplain of the House of Representatives of the first Congress of the Republic of Texas to meet in the new capital city.
Worship in Austin was held in a log house built by the men of the community and located south of what is now Wooldridge Park and west of the Austin History Center. Haynie’s first year of ministry included a wedding on May 7, 1840, the first marriage ceremony recorded in Travis County.
After serving the Austin area a second year, Haynie was succeeded in 1841 by the Rev. Josiah Whipple of Illinois, who preached in the Austin Circuit for two years, accompanied by a rifle and pistol in the pulpit in case of an Indian raid or Mexican invasion. His caution was justified: 1,500 Mexican soldiers invaded San Antonio in September 1842. In fact, so great was the threat of raids, uprisings and invasions that it was impossible for the church to continue in an organized fashion from 1843-45.
After conditions improved, the Rev. Homer S. Thrall was appointed to Austin by the Texas Conference. When he came to the capital of the soon-to-be state, he could find none of the original church members. Lacking a congregation, he walked to the Capitol at the corner of Eighth and Colorado Streets, where he preached in the halls of the Legislature. Thrall taught school to support himself and slept at night on the floor of a lawyer’s office.
In December 1846 Thrall again was appointed to lead the Austin Methodists, including Texas Gov. J.P. Henderson. A lot was purchased for $26 at the northeast corner of Congress and Cedar (now Fourth Street), and on Dec. 19, 1847, the board and batten structure was ready for the first worship service.
In late 1853 the original church building was sold to the Christian Church, and lots were purchased at the northeast corner of Brazos and Mulberry (now Tenth Street). Here a small, red-brick church was commenced in 1854 during the pastorate of the Rev. John W. Phillips. The new church was the worship home to a membership numbering 90, including 30 Negro slaves and servants. By 1858 the membership had grown to 231 members, including 135 slaves.
During the Rev. Josiah Whipple’s pastorate at the end of the Civil War, the roll totaled 77 when former slave members left after emancipation. With help from the Rev. Isaac Wright, a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the freed slaves formed Wesley Chapel Methodist Church.
The Austin congregation worshiped in the red-brick building until 1883 when, under the leadership of the Rev. A.E. Goodwyn, it was razed and replaced by a steepled structure built in the Roman style of architecture. Among those who contributed to the construction of the new church were Gov. John Ireland and former governors E.M. Pease and F.R. Lubbock.
It was in 1892, during the pastorate of the Rev. R.J. Briggs, that the church reached its peak 19th-century membership of 675. For a time the church was called Central Church, South; later it was referred to as Tenth Street Church until 1902, when it was officially called First Methodist Church. However, the term “Tenth Street Church” remained in common use until 1923, when the congregation began to worship in the basement of the present structure at Twelfth and Lavaca Streets, built during the four-year pastorate of the Rev. Edward R. Barcus. In 1928 the upper portion of the main building was completed. The Rev. W.F. Bryan was pastor. Total cost: $200,000.
After the Annual Conference of 1940, nine years of dynamic growth began for the Austin church with the appointment of the Rev. W. Kenneth Pope. When Pope arrived, the church had 1,986 members and a budget of $15,000; when he left in 1949 the membership totaled 3,451 with a budget of more than $100,000. The 1940s saw the addition of a church library, the beginning of radio broadcasts on KTBC and, in 1946, the burning of the mortgage notes of the church building. During Pope’s pastorate the parsonage north of the main building was converted into an education building, and in December 1948 the Popes moved into a new parsonage at the corner of Gaston and Jefferson Streets in Pemberton Heights.
Growth continued into the 50s, and at a special meeting on May 20, 1951, the congregation unanimously approved the erection of a new education building. In 1952, during the pastorate of the Rev. Marvin S. Vance, the old parsonage was razed and replaced by the education building used today.
Throughout the mid-50s First Methodist began experiencing some of the problems confronting downtown churches throughout the country. As the population moved away from the inner city, neighborhood churches flourished while downtown churches saw gradual declines in membership and attendance. From a peak of 3,546 in 1953, membership at First Methodist fell to 3,139 by 1956.
Despite the decline in numbers, the church continued to expand its facilities in the 60s, 70s and 80s. In 1962, the lower floor of the main building was remodeled to make room for a new nursery and child care center. New kitchen facilities were also built, and in 1965 the old wooden doors at the front of the church were replaced by glass doors. Remodeling in 1968 created new staff offices.
In 1971, through the inspiration of members H. W. “Woody” Wilson and Stan Lambert, an Endowment Fund was established. Mr. Lambert gave the first gift of $324. By January 1990, the date of Mr. Lambert’s death, the fund’s net worth had increased to $1,300,000. At the end of 2010 the fund’s net worth is somewhat over $5,500,000, and the annual contribution to the church’s operational expenses for 2011 will be approximately $230,000.
On Sep. 14, 1977, the Charge Conference, under the leadership of the Rev. Jack Heacock, voted to purchase the parking lot north of the education building. The growth of the church school and development of new classes meant even more expansion for First United Methodist, which in the 80s became familiar to thousands of Central Texas television viewers through televised services. The need for more meeting space was met through the purchase in 1985 of the Oetting building located at the northwest corner of Thirteenth Street and Lavaca Street.
The history of First United Methodist Church is as colorful as that of the city it serves. On Sunday, Nov 4, 1979, the congregation dedicated Official Texas Historical Markers at three sites of its houses of worship of the past and the present The first of these sites was that of the small church built in 1847 on Fourth and Congress. The second site, where two successive churches stood, was Tenth and Brazos Streets. The third site was that of the present church, begun in 1923, at 1201 Lavaca Street, just west of the State Capitol. In the spring of 1990, during the pastorate of the Rev John C. Gilbert, the church celebrated its sesquicentennial with “Jubilee 150.” Gilbert also led the church in the innovative remodeling of the Chapel. He retired in 1994 and was succeeded by Rev. John McMullen. McMullen served as Senior Pastor for seventeen years until his retirement at the time of the June 2010 Southwest Texas Annual Conference. This same conference appointed Barbara Ruth and John Wright, a clergy couple, as FUMC Co-Pastors. It is now their responsibility to lead First United Methodist Church of Austin in meeting the spiritual needs of its members and in service in the world. This church continues to be an integral part of the Austin community and is proud to proclaim its adherence to the motto “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”
First Church Celebrates 175th Anniversary
In January 2015, FUMC celebrated 175 years. A luncheon, talent show, guest speakers and an anniversary website highlighted this milestone. Read More on our 175th Anniversary site where a historical timeline of the church is available.